Something that frequently happens to successful podcasters is the podcasts that they’ve produced on their own get attention from companies and organizations that are interesting in producing their own podcasts. The opportunity is a good one for some, but not a match for others as working on “your podcast” can be a lot different from working on “their podcasts.”
Leslie Eiler Thompson is a Nashville-based podcast host and producer who followed this opportunity. I asked her about how it happened and the process of working on two different types of shows – a limited-run series called The Rogue Ones, which she produced herself, and a podcast she hosts for End Slavery Tennessee, a nonprofit that rescues and rehabilitates victims of domestic human trafficking, called Someone Like Me.
About The Rogue Ones
I talk to people "going rogue," living lives they never could have imagined in hopes that listeners will learn ways we can live with a bend toward the remarkable. It was inspired by Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers.
I realized that extraordinary people have a lot of wisdom to share that they may not realize can help others. My goal with this show was to find people living incredible lives and picking out the tidbits of opportunity, hard work, talent, skill, and perseverance we all can adopt to live remarkably.
I didn't quite know who this show was for until about halfway through the series, when people started sharing what it meant to them. These were people in jobs they didn't want and who had very big dreams - with equal amounts of intelligence and focus. These people needed encouragement from others who had made big decisions (and risks!) and ended up in places they never could've imagined.
About Someone Like Me
Someone Like Me empowers these brave survivors of domestic human trafficking to share their stories and educates listeners on the truths about human trafficking. I’m the host of this show, so I get to facilitate conversations between the End Slavery Tennessee staff and survivors, as well as outside voices that lend information and knowledge to the topic.
This project was a concept of Gregory Byerline, another Nashville podcaster. He’d seen an event End Slavery Tennessee had produced in which survivor stories were made into monologues and thought podcasting would be a great way to get a larger audience for them. Interestingly, we had launched our individual podcasts within days of each other and met at Podfecta in 2018. We later discovered we both attended the same church.
Gregory knew that in order to do the podcast for End Slavery Tennessee, due to the nature of the survivors’ backgrounds, it would be best for a female to capture and facilitate the interviews. He approached me with the idea and I was immediately “in.”
I've hopped around. I started with a basic Shure SM58, then went to the Samson Q2U (most of the Someone Like Me podcast is using this), and I think my next step will be a Shure SM7b. I’m currently renting one and waiting for Amazon to deliver my preamp!
I've had a Presonus Firestudio Mobile for years. It's not great but it works - after the mic, this will be my next upgrade. I got a Zoom H6 off FB Marketplace last year and it's been one of the best decisions EVER. I use it all the time.
Logic is where I do all my editing and most of my recording. Sometimes I'll use the Zoom H6, but if I do chances are high I'm sending a multi-track mix to Logic anyway.
How (and why) did you start podcasting?
As odd as it sounds, podcasting is a mix of all the interests I had growing up that touched on storytelling, technical creations, and sitting for hours in front of computers.
From a very young age, I grew up singing and performing in musicals and plays, which helped develop a palette for storytelling and narrative presentation. It also helped develop my literal voice structure and gave appreciation for the instrument as an art form.
But as much as I loved performing, I also adored sitting in front of our computer (most always downloading something that would destroy my poor parent's computer). We had a dial-up connection until I was a sophomore in high school, so when I wasn't playing The Sims, I spent a lot of my life on Windows Movie Maker and PowerPoint making presentations and videos for things I was interested in. I would collect photos and record narrations - I was learning how to tell stories via digital mediums. I truly loved computers...I could sit in front of one all day long - still can, and do!
Then I got into audio editing during the two summers I spent at speech camp (obviously, I have always been very cool). The camp was at a university that had an army of iMacs, and between coaching sessions and cutting my prose piece, I would be on Garageband making AWFUL tunes from the loop libraries and applying all the effects I could find. I was no Timbaland, but I do appreciate how much time I spent being curious and creating for no reason at all.
Then: college. It was by God's grace that I ended up a Music Technology emphasis at Belmont's Commercial Music school. This introduced me to Logic, and gave me ways to work with high-end products to create things. While I don't do much desktop music-making, the ability to work within a DAW has been a gift - having the know-how to affect, adjust, and edit conversations into the story arc I hear in my head is something I don't take for granted.
Finally, through influences I can't quite recall, I decided I would do a podcast. And I would walk every step of it, from writing to editing to marketing so I could learn the process intimately. When I look back, I love seeing all the roads that led me to podcasting, though they may have seemed fruitless or pointless at the time.
There's a lesson in this: chase the things that make you curious! Though it may take years to show up, they'll give you more to draw on when the time is right.
What makes a great podcaster?
Someone who cares a great deal about things. Whether its the storytelling, or the presentation, or the editing, great podcasters CARE. They care enough to keep going when numbers aren't great, and they care enough to continually make improvements to their work - to try new things, to outsource when needed. Caring is one of the greatest tools in a podcaster's toolbelt.
What makes a great podcast episode?
The specifics of what makes a great podcast episode comes down to personal preference - as with any art form - but in general, great podcast episodes CHANGE the listener.
Whether its a business show, a narrative piece, or a celebrity interview, the listener needs to leave that conversation with a new perspective, a story that will inspire them, or a new way of thinking that will change how they move forward. This doesn't have to be earth-shattering, it can be as simple as a guest telling a story about something that changed them.
Not everyone can be Malcolm Gladwell and produce Revisionist-History-mindblowing-level podcasts, but we can all aim to share things that will change and challenge our listener.
What do you love most about podcasting? Why?
The amazing phenomenon of making something from nothing. It's so elementary, but when I go to make sure an episode is up on Apple Podcasts and it is, or when I press "send" on that marketing email to announce a new installment of a podcast I’m working on, I get a wave of pride and delight.
I love that podcasting is such a wild west of an art and marketing tool. Guests are willing to come on shows FOR FREE, and if you have the right connections, you may be able to talk to people who would be otherwise unreachable. This provides such a great space for telling stories afresh, though the tool has been around for a long time.
What's the worst thing about podcasting? Why?
Technology. I know just enough to be able to record things, but once hums or buzzes enter into the sonic space, I'm useless. Also, some of the most awesome people in the world can barely operate their phones, and these people deserve the best audio when telling their stories but I can't afford to fly me and my gear to meet them in person. So we have to make do with Skype or recording a phone call, which will automatically turn some listeners off.
Ultimately, this comes down to budget: I hate having huge dreams and ideas that aren’t realized due to lack of funds. Don't we all?
What's the best thing that's happened to you because of your podcast?
When weird, wonderful things happen that I never could've planned. For example, I'm a huge fan of dog sled racing and I got to interview my favorite musher, Lance Mackey, in 2018. Then in 2020, I went to Alaska to be a part of his start team for the Iditarod. Without the podcast, that never would've had a chance to happen. (Interestingly, a huge role model of my husband's came on my show, and when we were testing audio he tells me he's also a big dog sledding fan AND LOVED MY EPISODE WITH LANCE! Just too cool.)
I adore when things in the podcast world become real-life realities (like when Up and Vanished suddenly became a real-time reporting show, or when Armchair Expert started doing live events).
Working On Your Podcast vs. Working On A Podcast For Somebody Else
When I started my podcast, I’ve often found myself wishing I had other people to lean on. When it was just me, it often felt like I was in a corner talking to myself.
The feeling of being alone in my podcasting was helped when I hired someone to master the final audio. Toward the end of The Rogue Ones series, I also hired someone to capture the interviews on tape, so I could focus on conducting the conversation.
When I’m working on something by myself, I can only reach as far as my wingspan to accomplish things. Working with End Slavery Tennessee has been a delight in this way. They have in-house marketing and communications staff people, and they are well-established in terms of media connections and sponsorship relationships. The creative team can truly focus on the product itself without having to also carry the baton over to promotion and sponsorship pitching.
There are, of course, some tradeoffs.
Doing my own podcast, I can come up with an idea (like: What if I did a “music geek” edit for this interview and kept in all the musical references and specifics? Or what if I did a second episode with all our rabbit trails?) and just do it. Immediately. Because I can.
If you’re being hired to produce a podcast for a company, you don’t get the flexibility like you do with your own show (though I will say our team on Someone Like Me is VERY quick with decision making and changing of plans). We have the benefit of a budget and a board of directors for checks and balances, but it means we have to plan in advance if there’s a change we’d like to see happen.
The benefit of having a larger team means new ideas take a little longer to digest and be implemented, and sometimes they’re not approved. That’s OK - we have to trust leadership to know what’s best for their organization. It also strengthens our planning and long-term strategy muscles.
Ultimately, I’m grateful for the collaboration and synergy of working with an organization to tell their story.
What non-podcasting skills do you have that have helped you to be a better podcaster? How have they helped you?
I own a creative marketing and publicity studio, so being able to brand and market my podcast helped a great deal with legitimacy. I think many people agreed to come on the show because I looked legit (custom website, bangin' socials, etc.), so I'm grateful I had the skills to do it myself instead of hiring people to do it for me.
Walk through the process you follow to market/promote a podcast episode...
Consistency is the name of the game for just about all things related to brand development - including podcasts. Just as podcast releases should be consistent, so too should the marketing. I don’t think there’s one single way to effectively market a podcast, and I found that doing different things would both hold interest and establish credibility with my audience.
For each episode, I do a series of things:
1. Write a really great, personal email to my podcast email list.
It wasn’t a large list, but the people who were on it wanted to be there, and I wanted to express my gratitude for their interest. So before social posts went up, there was an email scheduled with a personal note from me expressing a little more detail about why the guest was important and some “behind the scenes” content. When I had a musical guest, I asked if there were a song they’d like to give to my listeners, or maybe a free download of some sort.
2. Each episode had graphics scheduled to drop on the morning of the release.
I use Later social media scheduling for this, and while it’s not free or cheap, the price is worth the service to have consistent posts.
3. This is the part I’m experimenting with.
When I first started The Rogue Ones, I would try to make quote graphics to share the weeks after an episode drops in hopes they would be shareable (they weren’t). So then I tried making the audiograms with zingy clips from the show. While they didn’t prove to be particularly engaging on socials, they provided for new textures on the feed. They took a lot of time, so I decided to forgo these eventually.
Non-episode promotion and community-building:
1. Share content from guests.
The crux of my show is about following the life journeys of extraordinary people with the expectation that after the show they’d keep on doing awesome stuff. So I consistently share posts from past guests to drive home this idea: new ventures, press coverage, cool updates, etc. Our careers/vocations/lives are ever-evolving, and we need reminders of this when it feels like we don’t have anything more to offer. It’s my hope that this podcast offers these reminders to listeners.
2. Update the podcast (when needed) to keep it fresh.
This could fall under editing, but it’s purely a marketing/promotion tactic: At some point, I went through and edited all my intros/outros from the beginning of the podcast to update to the tone I had eventually settled into.
We all have terrible first episodes, but by watching my download stats, I found that if someone discovered the show after it had been established, they would go back and listen to the first episodes and not continue. So I updated my scripts (ALWAYS KEEP YOUR SCRIPTS FROM PAST EPISODES!) and added things mid-way like, “if you like this conversation, check out my chat with XYZ” and share why it's relevant to the current interview.
I learned this from Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing podcast. He’ll take an ad break halfway through, then offer another episode with similar themes and content. Sometimes I will do this at the end of an episode if the tone doesn’t feel right for the middle, but we all know once the conversation starts to wind down folks shut off and go to the next show.
I saw an immediate change in listenership when I did this - there were more listens to the entire season rather than just a few episodes with big names - people were sticking around.
If you were to start your podcast all over again, what would you do differently?
Honestly, would have chosen a name other than The Rogue Ones. I named my marketing company Rogue because it was a word I resonated with when I first went freelance. I thought The Rogue Ones would be a great podcast name.
It wasn’t. It automatically infers “Star Wars” and by the time I explain that it’s not, folks have already checked out.
While a show name isn’t everything, I highly suggest being strategic with the title. It doesn’t have to explain the show’s entire premise in one phrase, but it should provide enough intrigue for potential listeners to want to learn more. I had toyed with You Were Born and Then What Happened and while it still doesn’t match to the unique angle of the show, I think it would’ve been a better title in the long run.
What advice do you have for other podcasters?
Remember why you want to do it in the first place. If your goal is lots of listeners and high download numbers, be prepared to be disappointed. You might have a hit podcast that really takes off, and I hope you do, but know that most hit shows were once fledgling. It helps to be clear on why you’re doing this regardless of the popularity of your podcast, but especially during those times when it seems nobody is listening.
Also, don’t bite off more than you can chew. I often remind my marketing clients that you can always add to what you’re doing, but if you start to do less, people will notice.
Instead of resolving to do a weekly episode and struggling to maintain consistency, then eventually moving to once a month, and eventually not releasing anything because you’re discouraged….start with one GREAT episode a month. Learn what that feels like. Then once you have the muscle built, add one more episode per month.
Start with low expectations, then as you meet them, set the bar a little higher. Don’t come out of the gate with guns blazing, riding on the adrenaline of starting a new podcast. Slow and steady, my friends. It’s a learning process.